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Simple Food Swaps for Healthy Holiday Eating

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Maybe you've been able to drop a few pounds recently or hold your weight steady by eating more healthfully and exercising a bit. Are you worried that seasonal indulgences might sabotage your efforts? You're not alone.

The holidays are coming, and you know what that means—sit-down dinners with heaping platters of meat, gravy and sauce-laden vegetables, and buffet tables so filled with cheese-topped appetizers, mayonnaise-soaked salads and rich desserts that you can't see the tablecloth underneath. Gifts of irresistible candy, cookies, pies and cakes add to the temptations. No wonder our best intentions to eat in moderation crumble faster than fresh gingerbread!

De-stress for success

Does it have to be this way? There are scientists who say it doesn't, but only if you keep a careful notebook record of every morsel you eat. Just imagine how much fun you'll have at holiday parties, balancing a plate and drink while you try to scribble, "one pig, no blanket, extra mustard." Forget the notebook and de-stress to help keep holiday eating healthy, advises Jo-Anne Rizzotto, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., a registered and licensed dietitian at the Joslin Diabetes Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston. "Take time for yourself, even for just a few minutes," she says. "Make the holidays a conscious thought." By doing a little pre-planning, "you may be able to make different decisions."

Evaluate your traditional family favorites and decide to serve just the must-haves this year. Then perform what Rizzotto calls "recipe reconstruction" to lighten the ingredients in each. "Alter the fat or sugar content a bit," she says. That reduces calories and "you can still make them taste good."

A few ideas for turning popular holiday foods healthier:

  • Use olive oil and herbs instead of cream or cheese in veggie dishes.
  • Make green bean casserole with low-fat or dairy-free sour cream;
  • Replace sausage, white bread and butter in stuffing with nuts, whole grains and broth or water (if you can't give up the sausage, opt for the turkey or chicken version).
  • Choose sweet potatoes with cinnamon and spices (maybe add a drizzle of agave nectar) over scalloped white ones with butter and cream

If you're worried about your guests' reactions, Rizzotto adds, "find an ally in the family, someone who can support your approach." With your sister or cousin backing you up, it may be easier to make changes.

Emphasize the good stuff

Recent research shows what we've all long known, that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are great for our bodies. For your festive recipes, choose foods that do more than just taste good. For instance, pecans and other nuts rich in monounsaturated fat lower bad cholesterol, while peanuts reduce gallstone disease risk in women.

"Nuts are a far better snack than fat-free pretzels. You're getting antioxidants, which are better for you than a mouthful of starch," says nutritionist Lauren Swann, M.S., R.D., co-author of the Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook (Tradery House, 1993). Be sure to buy unsalted nuts, she recommends, or you may have trouble controlling your snacking.

Cranberries, blueberries and lingonberries are strong antioxidants and have cancer-preventive action. Broccoli, cauliflower and other cabbage family vegetables also reduce cancer risk. Even chocolate and cocoa may benefit your cardiovascular system.

Just don't bury good foods under fats and sugar. Swann loves sweet potatoes, which are rich in vitamin A, beta-carotene and potassium. But she sees no reason to add cream, sugar and marshmallows to them, as many family holiday recipes do. "Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet," Swann says. She bakes hers, then slices and sprinkles them with salt-free lemon pepper or cinnamon.

Eating at home

When you're in charge of the menu, you can call the shots:

  • Cook the stuffing outside the bird to lower fat content. Add chopped spinach and spices such as fennel or sage instead of meat.
  • Season cooked broccoli, collard greens and asparagus with fresh lemon juice or fresh herbs.
  • Purée potato-and-vegetable mixtures to use instead of cream sauces.
  • Let drippings cool in the refrigerator; skim off the hardened fat on top before making gravy. If you're short on time, use a special gravy-separating cup or canned fat-free gravies.
  • Stop by the supermarket for quick and healthy prepared foods: cut-up vegetables, salsa, low-fat dips and baked whole grain chips. Skip the potato and macaroni salads.
  • Love to bake? Make a small batch and share, so goodies don't stay around the house for long. If your idea of a happy holiday includes a bake-fest with relatives or friends, don't go overboard. "Female bonding doesn't have to be over 12 dozen different cookies. Pick out one or two types," says Swann. "You don't have to be in the kitchen all day."
  • Eat breakfast. People who lose weight and keep it off eat breakfast every day.
  • Take a walk before the guests arrive or after meals. Give yourself the gift of a little time to think, relax and rejuvenate.

On the town

As a guest, you can make healthy choices and still have a great time:

  • Going to a party? Have an apple or a cup of soup while you're getting ready. Don't skip meals beforehand, thinking you'll "bank" all your calories for the main event. Instead, "you're so hungry that it takes more food to fill you up," Rizzotto says.
  • Socialize away from the buffet table or the bowl of chips.
  • Use a small plate. Put your food on it instead of nibbling right from serving trays.
  • Think portion control, not deprivation-even with dessert. Take a moderate spoonful or narrow slice of foods you want to try.
  • Drink sparkling water, plain, or flavored with a splash of orange or cranberry juice.
  • Avoid alcohol. It adds calories and may lower your resistance to overeating.
  • Put down your fork while the evening is still young. Late-night eating gives you less of a sense of fullness than eating earlier in the day and can result in a larger daily food intake.
  • Bring a healthy dish to share that you also enjoy eating. That way, you'll have an alternative if the table is loaded with high-fat foods.

Keep your perspective

Even if you slip up once or twice, it's not the end-of-the-world, or the end of your ability to make wise eating choices again. Balance low- and higher-calorie foods, set your own traditions with healthier recipes, take short walking breaks for yourself, and you'll have fun this season.

"Holidays are a good thing...They're not just about eating" Swann says. "They're about getting together with the people we love."